#MeToo in Indie Music, and the Pinegrove Example

In a year which has heaped upon us a depressing deluge of exposés of revered figures in our popular culture, from Michael Jackson to Rolf Harris (okay, not always that revered either…) there are few of us music fans who haven’t been touched by the dilemma of separating art from the artist. In music especially, it has become impossible to ignore that fact that some songs which have formed the soundtracks to some of the best days of our lives were made by humans whose actions we abhor. In the last week, many Morrissey fans may have found themselves struggling to listen to his new LP over a different moral quandary, thanks to his appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon wearing that badge.

At least the medium, sound, was always innocent in all this: there are no liberal chords and fascist riffs. Imagine that you come across a 1970s flamenco album on a spurious random internet blog, you download the ZIP file and find that it touches you deeply. You don’t speak Spanish, but the music is joyous and you want to share that joy, by hijacking playlists at parties and sending a link to your mother. Then, years later, you make the mistake of sharing your little find with a Spanish-speaking friend, who is shocked to find you endorsing an old album with lyrics which can be best described as rampantly fascist. You are horrified, but what are you meant to do? It’s too late, you’re already in. You may loathe the politics, but nothing has inherently changed about the music itself. 

The same can be said of accused artists. We may now know what we know about Michael Jackson, but the make-up of ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ (a pretty a-political song) has not changed in the 32 years since its debut. Michael Jackson is a permanently tainted icon, but the 2.5 million people in the U.S. alone who stream his songs each day do not feel compelled to stop. What are the rules anyway? Can we be comfortable listening to albums like Off The Wall, made before Jackson was accused of any perversions, but not Dangerous, released after they would have taken place? There is also the fact that the accused died well over a decade ago.

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Fan made poster in defence of Michael Jackson, which appeared across the world in the wake of Leaving Neverland

These moral nuances mask the fact that the answer to these questions will almost universally be determined by how invested you were in the art in the first place. Moral absolutists will tell you to drop all ties to art created by individuals who does such things – endorse fascism, evade tax, commit sexual assault or emotionally manipulate people over whom they hold power – but this is easier tweeted than done. I have no problem never listening to the music of Michael Jackson or R Kelly again, but I never felt moved by their music in the first place. If the same was revealed about Paul Simon or Björk, for example, I might run into slightly more difficulty.

My mate Eleanor was faced with such a dilemma when accusations were made against the lead singer of her absolute favourite artist, the emo-country outfit Pinegrove. The band is incalculably smaller than the likes of Michael Jackson, and their crimes arguably less horrifying (although presumably not to the victim), but to a fan like her it was very significant indeed. As such, I asked her to write about the incident for Sorry Scholar– tackling her fandom and the way in which Pinegrove’s positive response to the accusations may set a precedent for the future of the music industry.

Eleanor: In November 2017, as the Weinstein effect began to snake its way through the entertainment industry, Pinegrove frontman Evan Stephens Hall posted a statement on the band’s Facebook page. Hall revealed that he had been accused of sexual coercion by someone he had been previously involved with, going on to address both the allegation and his personal conduct on, and off, stage.

After having seen famous name after famous name publicly shamed for abusing their professional position, it felt extremely disappointing that yet another man had harmed a women who had given him her trust. But in all honesty my instinctive reaction wasn’t pure outrage, but a combination of shock, mourning and denial. I felt let down by someone who had acted in a way that was incompatible with the person I has assumed them to be and responded by internally downplaying the severity of the incident. After all, “coercion” was a vague term and it was easy to mistake vagueness for innocence; to take lack of evidence to mean lack of impropriety. Not only this, but I was truly devastated that I had been – what felt like – personally punished for someone else’s misdoings. I was certainly appalled and didn’t doubt that what Hall was admitting to was true, but I was most fixated by the closing lines of the statement with horror, feeling seriously maligned when I read the words: “we are taking some time off”.

I had criticised fans of the bands Neck Deep and Brand New for putting subjective opinions of band members before the lived experiences of women, and yet here I was, feeling hurt and confused by a cancelled gig. When allegations like these surface the fan is put in an uncomfortable position between supporting the victim and condemning abuse, but wondering where, and if, a line should be drawn. Is it okay to attend a gig fronted by a man accused of coercion, but not for one accused of assault? Never knowing the full details, can you forgive a man who says he is really, really sorry? Or do you simply enjoy the music as an act of creation separated from the actions of the band members?

Hall’s statement felt different to the public apologies made by his predecessors. It was the only statement I had seen thus far that acknowledged both responsibility for the front man’s actions and the privileged position both his gender and career afforded him. He recognised that these privileges had impacted his relationships and interactions with fans, and that his conduct was inappropriate given this underlying power imbalance.

Hall used his statement to address a range of incidents spanning his time on tour:

in reflecting on interactions with other people i’ve met through music, i see i could have been better there too. i have been flirtatious with fans and on a few occasions been intimate with people that i’ve met on tour. i’ve reached the conclusion now that that’s not ever appropriate—even if they initiate it. there will always be an unfair power dynamic at play in these situations and it’s not ok for me to ignore that.

Without wanting to heap praise on somebody for simply recognising their own inappropriate behaviour, Hall’s self-reflection showed a level of maturity we hadn’t seen in previous statements of a similar kind. Crucially, he voiced an awareness that the rules of conduct differ when in a position of power and responsibility, regardless of apparent consent. Later in the statement, Hall drew attention to a particularly uncomfortable comment he had made about how he could “sense who from the crowd would be interested in sleeping with [him] based on how they watched [him] perform”, a comment that he acknowledged was highly problematic given his position, and offended and objectified women regardless of his intention.

It is easy to pen a gushing apology and let social media do the disseminating for itself. In this case, however, actions seemed to speak louder than words: Pinegrove cancelled and refunded both the remainder of their US tour and their future European tour dates. The band underwent a radio silence and Hall underwent therapy.

When the band went on to self-release their already-written-and-produced album Skylight in late 2018, the album dropped to the confused surprise of fans who had already confined Pinegrove to the past. The band kept their profile respectfully low; there were no interviews in major music magazines bar Jenn Pelly’s exposé for Pitchfork, and the minimal amount of marketing for album and tour didn’t stretch much further than the band’s Instagram account. At the live shows, the merch proceeds went to Planned Parenthood. Addressing these choices in Pelly’s Pitchfork interview, Hall explained how the decisions concerning the band’s hiatus and subsequent return were made in dialogue with the unnamed woman. Rather than taking efforts to silence the woman who had brought about the allegations, she instead became part of the conversation as to how the band, and Hall, moved forward.

This respectful and inclusive approach is light years away from earlier responses of artists to abuse allegations. In 2015 Falling In Reverse’s Ronnie Radke sued a woman for defamation after she accused him of rape. After being accused of harassment that same year, Jake Mcelfresh of Front Porch Step shifted blame to his alleged victims by stating that “[t]exting is a two way street. […] As a touring singer song writer who had access to just about anything, I was happy. I was content. I never once sought out the attention from fans, but was happy to know that I had an online forum of adoring women who thought I was great”. Even though Mcelfresh apologised, he refused to take full responsibility for his action, instead putting the onus on his fans to stay away from him, lest he be tempted by one of them.

There is a dark past to alternative music, as there are in many of our sacred cultures. It was a past in which fingers were more often pointed towards the accuser than the accused – and special treatment was afforded to men whose offerings to the music scene were of higher value than their moral propriety. Back in 2015, after allegations of misconduct against Neck Deep guitarist Lloyd Roberts became public, the band issued a statement that differed starkly from Hall’s in 2018: where Neck Deep emphasised the sullying of Roberts’s reputation, Hall held himself accountable, regardless of Pinegrove’s newfound popularity. While Neck Deep confirmed that their tour would go ahead and thanked fans for their “continued support of Neck Deep” as a whole, Hall acknowledged his actions as an individual and didn’t take advantage of his apparent immunity to culpability as a member of a burgeoning indie band.

Liam: If we acknowledge that #MeToo is a movement which calls for a change to the entire fabric of a culture – from the most explicit make up of its hierarchies to the attitudes and behaviours which are so ingrained that we don’t even recognise them as exploitative – there will be growing pains. When a band or musican aquires a fanbase, it also acquires power, which makes such exploitation far easier for those who seek it, and far trickier for those who may not recognise that their behaviour privilege their own interests at the behest of the well-being of another person. It feels like Hall of Pinegrove falls into the latter camp, and in such cases ‘cancelling’ an entire band may not be the answer. There was no literal crime committed, and so the only sentence the band could receive is the condemnation of the listeners who pay them. Appropriately, it is the ability of the perpetrators to own their behaviour and prove their mettle in response to allegations which shapes the public’s ability to embrace their music going forward. I would argue that Pinegrove’s measured actions were a model response. With Eleanor, I was there at the band’s intimate gig at the Borderline in London on April 10th, and the diverse and effusive crowd there seemed to be overjoyed to see them: an implicit, if not explicit, approval of their handling of the situation, perhaps.

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Pinegrove at The Borderline, April 2019

Eleanor: It is impossible to write, even 18 months later, with a mindset that isn’t clouded by a deep love for Pinegrove’s music. Jenn Pelly observes the almost “rabid obsessiveness” of Pinegrove fans, and, while I like to think I have the capacity to critically discuss even one of my most-loved bands, the fact remains that Pinegrove have built up a fanbase who have connected to their music in a highly emotional and enduring way. When I listen to Pinegrove I think of my own experiences and the memories associated with them; experiences which, Pelly says, “dictate what we are comfortable with, what we can possibly forgive, and what we cannot accept”. With this in mind I bought tickets to the band’s 2019 tour, willing to find out if Hall was all talk, or if he really had drawn a line in his life.

In 2019, people are calling for an end to musical impunity. What seems to be taking its place is not the crucifixion of victim or of band, but critical judgement and reasoning. Yes, audiences will remain at liberty to cancel problematic art and artists – particularly when a gender imbalance remains in the alternative music industry. However, this isn’t always the most productive response to allegations against artists, and more fans seem to be, like Hall, addressing these issues from a more mature and reflective place.

#MeToo has kickstarted an era in which women have felt more comfortable coming forward with their own stories about abuse and impropriety at the hands of powerful industry moguls and artists. Women in music and female fans are being listened to and taken seriously in a way that wasn’t happening previously and, not only this, but allegations are being met with critical reflection from both fan and artist, rather than the vilification or silencing of victims, or the immediate cancellation of bands and musicians. Not all offences deserve redemption, of course, but with artists and fans listening to and learning from one another, it seems like we’re heading in the right direction, at last.

Words by Eleanor Gaffney & Liam Inscoe – Jones.

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